Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I Thought So

This is about why things are better than ideas, and maybe not.

This is about business, whether or not money is involved. That sounds strange but business is more than money. Hucksters have been saying so for years. Making money is easy they say, don't worry about it. Easiest thing in the world. Or, if you do the right thing the money will follow. Inevitably.

The real message is underneath, snaking around, sniffing for your wallet. What they really want is the money, your money, but they don't want you to catch on.

This reinforces what I just said. Really. Business is about more than money, and in a way money isn't the point, even if it is. If you focus on money, and only on money, you will fail. You can't help it. Money is the wrong thing to focus on.

I've always felt that competitions were pointless. Take a sport. Sprinting. Say you want to compete. You want to win. The idea is to win, and you want to do that. So what's the most efficient way to win? Kill off the other competitors. Get real. Anything else would be stupid.

How much time do you really want to spend training? Do you really want to find out after years of effort that the kneecaps you were born with prevent a win? Screw that. If you want the trophy then blow away everyone else. Walk to the finish line. If no one else is running then you have it made.

Want to make lots of money? Don't see the point in earning an MBA and spending decades clawing to the top? Rob banks. Do a bunch in one day. Bing. End of story. Vacation time. Forever.

So if the whole idea was the payoff then things would be simple. Cut the crap and grab the whole pie.

But it doesn't work that way. In case you hadn't noticed.

There are reasons why you can't rob a bank when you need money. Or rob the guy sitting beside you on the bus. The whole law enforcement thing is not what I'm talking about either. The real reason is that it doesn't work. Like trickle-down economics, being a robber baron was tried once and it failed, left behind by history. You may have heard of it. Called the Dark Ages. People learned slowly, but they learned.

We're beyond that now. The reason is efficiency.

Hitting someone over the head and making off with their loot sounds like an efficiency. But it doesn't work as a general way of doing business. Even if only a few of us try it. Tends to disrupt everything else. Causes system-wide failures. So we don't do it. Business is about more than money. Where have you just heard that before?

One way or another you have to inspire people. Give them a thrill. Make them want to join your side. Then make your side big so everyone can join, or most everybody. Make some money on the side. If you focus completely on money then you lose focus on everything else. Then you fail. And then you don't make any money. At all.

There is a split right down the middle of this game. On one side you have things and on the other you have ideas. Generally speaking things are easier. Its easier to base a business around providing things than around providing ideas. It tends to be easier to set up, easier to administer, and more profitable. Sort of.

Think about things versus ideas.

Things are easy to grasp. You reach out your hand and grab one. People like to touch stuff. It's built in. That's one reason we use the phrase "grasp an idea". We are that way. We want stuff we can pick up and play with and bite and throw.

Things are discrete. You know where an apple starts and where it ends. You know how big it is and what it weighs. You're familiar with its texture and flavor and color. A thing gives you several dimensions to judge it by, and you don't have to think about it either. You are hard wired.

If you have something today you have it tomorrow. You know what it is and where. You can paint racing stripes on it, give it a name, and trade it for something else, even if it's a cat.

So you want to set up a business? It's easier if you sell things. You don't need a creed. No need to take sides or argue a case. Just say here is this here thing, it does this and doesn't do that, it comes in these colors, lasts this long and costs this much. Buy it and do what you want with it.

But wait, there's more.

Once you own this thing you can use it all the time or only now and then. Get tired of it now, put it down now and find it waiting in your closet next year. It'll still be good.

Buying, selling, using, storing: all simple. Things are tidy and clean. As long as a thing works it's always new because every time you use it the situation is a little different. Every backyard game is different, and so the football is too, sort of, even though it's the same. But different.

But maybe you have more competition selling things. Everybody can sell the same things as you.

So ideas, now, how about them? Maybe tougher.

Each idea is unique. No mass production.

Ideas are slipperier. Juggling them can make your head hurt. You have to work to get a grip. Each one is different so each one is unfamiliar, harder to customize because you have to know it inside and out, where it came from and where it is going. No size, no shape, no taste, no smell, no texture, no color.

You can't have crates of ideas waiting in the back room. There is no volume discount. Every idea is hand crafted and requires its own care and feeding regime.

Ideas go stale, or age out, or fade away. Ideas are tough to fit into a business model. You can't order from a catalog, in every possible size and color, to keep them in stock, just in case. And an idea is new only once, no matter how good it is. It comes with its own environment and doesn't feel different if you use it on the beach instead of at the office. There is no way to paint racing stripes on an idea.

On the other hand, ideas thrive among people. Ideas have a life of their own. They bring people together. They are almost the only reason to keep living.

Check out a major league baseball game. If it's not baseball that moves you, then pick opera, or quilting, or a church service. Then bind. You bind to ideas.

If it's a baseball game you aren't there for the seats, or the restrooms. It's the idea. Your team versus theirs. Or a good team versus another good team. The idea of sport, life, a struggle. To see excellence and its acting out. Or some other reason, but a reason all the same, one full of life. Reasons are ideas.

It's the group though. Maybe you're just sitting there at the game surrounded by others and enjoying that, or maybe you help to run things, but it's ideas that bring you to a group and hold you. You have a place. You have friends and enemies. You have meaning. Commonality. Sharing. Purpose. You can make better sense of things with others. This is why an idea appeals to you as a buyer.

As a seller of ideas things are hard.

Ideas are new only once. Ideas are always hard to keep alive. They are so slow to sell. There is only one of each idea, but anyone can make infinite copies, without asking first. Ideas are a hard breed, as you know if you've tried to create a new one. And people shy from any idea too unlike any other they know about.

This can be a hard sell, very hard.

Selling ideas is a poor way to make a living. It's better to rob banks if you want money. Except that robbing banks is even worse. Like democracy being the absolutely worst form of government except for all the others.

The key to ideas is the group. A society. A clan. A band of disciples. A congregation. A family. A community.

Find the right idea and the right way to share it with the right people and you have a self sustaining system. Even one idea can start the process. An idea which forms a core and then draws in a community. The pull of more and more people keeps communities growing. Feed in a few more of the right ideas and the community will reach critical mass and grow on its own.

If you gently manage the habitat, tend the ecosystem, you may make it, but not by cutting throats.

The system can grow and remain fresh based on ideas. Those ideas that remind us of why we are alive, that bring us the pleasure in being together. Do it right and some money will come along for the ride. Maybe a lot, maybe not.

That's another story. Think about whether you would rather be J.K. Rowling or a flower seller.


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